Wills, William John (DNB00)

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WILLS, WILLIAM JOHN (1834–1861), Australian explorer, the son of William Wills, a medical man, was born at Totnes, Devonshire, on 5 Jan. 1834, and educated at Ashburton school till 1850, when he was articled to his father, and at intervals from 1850 to 1852 studied medicine in London, both at Guy's and St. Bartholomew's hospitals. On 1 Oct. 1852, carrying out an idea which his father had already formed, he emigrated with his brother to Victoria, and started life as a shepherd at 30l. a year and rations. In 1853 he was joined by his father, and settled at Ballarat, where for almost a year he acted as his father's assistant. He was, however, always pining for the open air and the bush, and in 1855 he obtained admission as a volunteer to the office of the surveyor of crown lands for the district. Here his aptitude for astronomical work and surveying was soon recognised. In 1858 he was employed on his first field survey for the department. In November 1858, on the institution of the magnetic and meteorological observatory at Melbourne, he was appointed to the staff.

In 1860 Wills was appointed third in command of the exploring expedition sent out from Victoria to discover a route to the north across Australia. The party left Melbourne on 20 Aug. 1860, and proceeded slowly as far as the Darling river, where a difference occurred between the leader, Robert O'Hara Burke [q. v.], and Landells, the second in command, resulting in the retirement of Landells and the appointment of Wills to be second in command. On 19 Oct. Burke and Wills, with a portion of their men, left Menindie with sixteen camels and fifteen horses, to push on in advance of the rest of the expedition. Travelling about twenty miles a day, they made Torowoto on 29 Oct., whence they sent back a despatch with a report by Wills. This was the only direct message ever received from them, and in it Burke remarks, ‘I consider myself very fortunate in having Mr. Wills as my second in command. He is a capital officer, zealous and untiring in the performance of his duties.’ After leaving the Torowoto swamp the party proceeded by way of Wright's Creek to Cooper's Creek, which was reached on 11 Dec. A depot was formed, and on 16 Dec. Burke and Wills started northward with six camels, a horse, and three months' provisions. Their route was for the most part through a pleasant country and along good watercourses, and they reached the tidal waters of the Flinders river on 12 Feb. 1861. Wills's own diary is the source from which we learn the details of their advance, and he tells the tale in a simple and modest fashion. On 21 April they arrived at the depot on their return journey, but only to find it abandoned.

On 23 April they started down Cooper's Creek for Adelaide; but after losing their remaining camels they began to feel the anxieties of their position, without proper conveyance, and dependent on the natives or their own exertions for supplies. Between 27 May and 6 June Wills made a journey on foot and alone to the depot at Cooper's Creek and back to the camp on the road to Mount Hopeless. No help had come, and they were all in a desperate position. Wills's journal tells the tale of gradual starvation during the month of June; the last entry is on 26 June, when he records that Burke and King, the only other Englishmen remaining, are to leave him in the search for help from the natives, and that he does not expect to last more than four or five days. King, the only eventual survivor of the party, returned within that time, and found that Wills had already died, probably on 29 or 30 June.

It was the opinion of many that if only Wills had been in chief command of the expedition its success would have been attained without such loss of life. It is in evidence that Wills on more than one occasion advised a course which would have certainly been rewarded by the safety of the party (Howitt).

Wills has been described by one of his friends as ‘a thorough Englishman, self-relying and self-contained.’ He was modest yet strong of purpose, persevering, and to the last degree trustworthy. His passion for astronomy was remarkable, but study of all kinds was a part of his life. He was thoughtful and religious.

A national memorial of him and his leader stands in front of the Parliament House at Melbourne. There is also a memorial of him at his native town of Totnes, and a tablet in his old school at Ashburton. One of the streets in Ballarat is called after him. A print of a good portrait is given in his father's memoir of his journey.

[Wills's Exploration of Australia, London, 1863; Illust. Lond. News, 1862, pp. 126–7, 157; Howitt's Hist. of Discovery in Australia, ii. 191 sqq.; Parl. Paper on the Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition, House of Commons, 1862, No. 139.]

C. A. H.